Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

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Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here. 

“Kneel.” A voice grated in Ev’s ear like rusted metal. The man dug his boot into the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. A guttural scream penetrated the heavy wooden door before her, low and barking. A woman. The flesh at her wrists tore as Ev fought against her restraints.

Cold, hard metal pressed against the base of her skull. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

“If you kill me, she’s going to die.”

“She’s going to die anyway.” The man’s mouth twisted into a jagged-toothed sneer. “It’s the whelp we want.”

He kept his pistol trained on her and unlocked the door. Ev stared past the man at the scene beyond. Blood. Too much blood. Another scream rose up from the fathoms, rising and cresting to crash against the woman’s body. She shook with it.

A priest in dark robes bent his head to speak with the soldier. His eyes met Ev’s, piercing. He nodded. The soldier hauled her to her feet and shoved her inside. The sweltering air stank of shit and iron and sweat. Beads of moisture oozed out of Ev’s skin and burned her eyes.

“Untie her.” The robed man turned his gaze back to the tortured woman, his face relaxed into a subtle smile. Ev wanted to grind his face into the blood-soaked mattress and watch him suffocate. The soldier wrenched her shoulders in their sockets and cut the rope. Another wail from the woman filled the room.

“It’s time.” An ancient looking radio transceiver blinked on the wall behind the man. “You know why you’re here.”

“I need my kit.” Ev rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and rubbed her wrists. Sweat prickled Ev’s neck and rolled between her shoulder blades. Prisoner or not, she had a job to do. “Some water.”

“You need a knife.” The priest indicated a tray next to the bed. Three makeshift blades flickered in the orange light from the woodstove on the back wall. Dirty white leather wrapped around the stainless steel shafts. This wasn’t a delivery room; it was a butchery. One blade had what appeared to be tiny teeth at the tip. A wave of nostalgia flooded through Ev. She wondered if the woman enjoyed skating as a child, before the black robes came. Before the war.

“I’m not doing surgery with a shiv.”

“No.” The priest blinked. “You’re not doing surgery.”

The woman rocked on her hands and knees. The crimson stain on the back of her dress spread like the petals of a gruesome flower. Her screams gave way to a primal growl that tore out of her body like it could carry the baby with it. She was in traction.

“I’m sorry,” Ev said. The woman groaned on, unhearing. Bile burned the back of Ev’s throat when she grasped the grimy leather hilt of the longest blade. Ev motioned to the soldier. “Hold her down.”

The priest nodded and the soldier strode to the head of the bed. He flipped the woman onto her back and put his weight into her body, muscles tensed. The woman’s eyes lolled in their sockets, the surrounding flesh so pale it tinged green. If she died before delivery, the child might, too.

Ev slipped the knife into the woman’s dress and tore the fabric away from her bulging stomach. A lump protruded from one side, above her hip bone. The baby’s head. It’s a mercy, she told herself. Ev pressed the skate blade against the woman’s abdomen and closed her eyes.

“Forgive me.”

Ev plunged the knife into the woman’s womb, braced herself against the bed, and tugged downward. The woman’s body convulsed and she writhed against the soldier. A gurgle escaped her throat and her eyes bulged. Blood and amniotic fluid surged out of the wound, and the last of the woman’s life went with it.

Ev reached inside the cavity. Her fingers found an arm or a leg. She wrapped her hand around the baby’s body and pulled. Hot and wet and screaming the baby came into the world and Ev’s heart nearly burst. She ripped the woman’s dress away from her breasts and placed the baby on her still-warm chest. The infant rooted and latched.

“My daughter.” The priest’s voice cut through Ev’s relief. Acid burned her esophagus and she shuddered.

The soldier relaxed his grip but she stopped him with a word. “No. We’re not finished yet.”

He paused, and that was enough. Ev gripped her blade tightly and slashed upward. The soldier’s throat opened with a hissing spray of more blood. Ev spun and drove the knife into his side. Despite his armour, the blade slid into his flesh more easily than it had the woman’s. She wrenched the blade free and stabbed him again.

The priest shouted and lunged for the transceiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Ev aimed the dead soldier’s pistol at his back. “Don’t fucking move.”

She placed a sodden blanket over the infant and stepped around the bed. She kept the gun on the robed man and grabbed the toothed blade from the table. The man stared at her, wild-eyed. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Patch me in.”

The man fumbled with the transceiver, flipping switches with trembling hands. Static filled the air in place of the woman’s screams. He held the mouthpiece toward her and pressed the call button.

“Mobile Tactical Surgical Hospital zero zero one,” Ev said. “This is Unit Seven. Do you copy?”

“Mitch one here, Unit Seven,” a voice crackled on the other end. “We copy.”

“The women are being held under the radio tower,” Ev said. “Proceed with caution.”

“Roger that, moving in,” the MTSH operator said. “What took you so long, Seven?”

Ev pulled the trigger and the priest crumpled at her feet. She picked up the receiver and said, “I had to deliver a baby.”

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“The Midwife” was my submission for Round Three of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Thriller, Location: a radio tower, Object: ice skates. I didn’t place in the top ten of this round. The judges feedback is below:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1795}  This religious takeover in the minds of writers today seems to be a recurring theme. Thankfully each look at this supremacy is different, but still, it’s very interesting to note. I love the conflict within Ev while she’s forced in to do this work and has to sacrifice the woman to save the baby and give her time to kill the men and deliver her message.

{1651}  The story feels high stakes with many suspenseful moment.

{1689}  I love how Ev’s actions reveal her inner character. The reveal that the pregnant mother so meaningless to the priest and the soldier is equally maddening and chilling. Ev’s swift action to save mother—and child indirectly—is breath-taking.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1795}  When describing the blades, I would actually mention that one of them is a skating blade. When you talk about the one with tiny teeth at the tip and then talk about skating, we think you’re still talking about that particular blade. But then suddenly Ev is cutting the woman open with a skating blade, and then later grabs the toothed blade to threaten the priest. A bit more clarity with regards to what and where the blades are might clear this up.

{1651}  There’s some spots I don’t understand. Did they kidnap Seven to deliver a baby and if so, how does her team know she’s there? How can Seven hold a knife and hold a pistol while breastfeeding a baby? Why didn’t she try to save the mother?

{1689}  Pull back at some point and give us some context. I don’t think that will undermine Ev’s identity or role. But we do need a better sense of what this is all about so that we are not distracted by trying to figure it out.

“Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here.

Once upon a time, when stories flowed like rivers and rivers were never what they seemed, there was a girl. Her name was Suds. It wasn’t her real name, but her parents were soap-makers and they thought themselves very clever.

They were also very sad. Suds’ parents longed for another child. In fact, the soap-makers whispered that they were cursed.

Suds knew that was nonsense. But that was the way of grown-ups, she thought, always wishing for more and forgetting what they’ve got.

Then, when Suds was twelve years old, her mother gave birth to a baby boy. Suds loved her brother. Everyone was very happy.

With her parents so distracted, Suds enjoyed her freedom. She roamed the woods outside their village, picked berries, snared rabbits, chased pheasants, and never once thought about making soap.

The weeks turned into months, and her parents’ infatuation with the new baby grew. The family needed money. But neither the mother nor the father could bear to leave the boy, not for a moment.

“Suds, we need you to go down to the river today,” her mother said one morning. She rocked the baby boy and cooed.

“For what?” Suds asked.

“You must leach the lye and make the soap,” her father explained. “Or soon we will starve.”

“Alone?”

“Your brother needs us,” her parents said. “We need you. Please go to the river today.”
Suds collected her tools and glared at the soap-makers.

“Don’t forget your gloves,” her mother said, looking at the baby. “And don’t talk to the Nixe.”

Down at the river, Suds built up a fire. She hauled the great iron tub up over the coals, filled it with water, and waited for the water to boil.

All the while, a creature watched her from the bank. Suds never looked directly at it. If she did, it was sure to start talking to her. River spirits loved to talk to children, especially children who were not with their parents. The thing crept closer. It smelled of rotting fish.

“What are you doing, child?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and stirred the water in the tub. She hummed quietly to herself and waited for the water to boil.

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and watched the bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the iron tub. She hummed quietly to herself and shovelled some ashes into the boiling water.

“Let me try, will you?”

At this, Suds looked up. The Nixe cocked its head. Milk-white eyes rolled in sockets of water-logged flesh. The fish smell was much worse up close. Suds knew better than to make a deal with a river spirit. But she longed to go exploring in the forest.

So Suds showed the Nixe how to keep the fire hot, boil the water, scoop the ashes, and skim the lye. And, most importantly, she showed the creature how to protect its delicate skin from burning with the heavy leather gloves. Soon, the creature was doing all the work for her.

“Delightful!” The spirit’s black tongue flashed out between its lips and it tugged at the gloves. “But this soap-making is giving me an appetite. Let us make a deal. I will do your work for you if you bring me something to eat.”

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

“I hate fish. All I eat is fish. Cold and slimy and flip-flopping,” the creature said. “No. Bring me a basket of berries from the forest and I will make fifty bars of soap.”

Fifty bars of soap was twice as many as Suds could make in a day. It was a deal worth taking. So she went off to gather berries and enjoy a day in the forest.

When she returned with the berries, the Nixe bared its sharp teeth in a smile. It gobbled the berries up, presented the pile of soaps, and leapt into the river with a splash. Suds carried the soaps home to her parents.

The soap-makers were thrilled. They hugged Suds and praised her and wondered how they had been blessed with such a wonderful daughter. Suds basked in their love and privately vowed to make a deal with the river spirit again tomorrow.

“I will make one hundred bars of soap for you,” the Nixe said the next morning. “If you bring three plump, juicy rabbits to fill my belly.”

Suds knew her snares were full and she looked forward to another day in the woods. She took that bargain, too. And when she returned, the Nixe had all of her soaps prepared. Again, she returned a hero to her parents. The next day the price was six pheasants. Suds thought herself very lucky.

But on the fourth day, the Nixe was harder to please.

“I am very, very hungry,” the river spirit said. “Today I need something more.”

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

“I will make your soaps for the rest of your life,” the Nixe fluttered its gills and sniffed. “But you must bring me the baby.”

“That,” said Suds, “is something I will not do.”

“You will,” said the Nixe. “Or I will have you instead. I am very, very hungry.”

“No!” Suds lunged at the Nixe, but it was a slippery creature and much wilier than the girl. The river spirit slipped right out of Suds arms and it shoved her into the hot tub of lye.

The Nixe knew just what to do. It pulled on the protective gloves, and stirred the pot. When Suds’ bones had dissolved, it made the broth into soap.

Then, the river spirit drew upon its glamour. It turned itself into a girl, very like Suds, but for the wet hem of its dress and the rumbling of its stomach. And it brought the bars of soap to the grateful mother and father.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course, the soap-makers.

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“Making Suds” was my submission for Round Two of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Location: a hot tub, Object: a pair of gloves. I placed third overall in my group. The judges feedback is below:

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  This has all of the elements of a classic fairytale. We gets a strong sense of Suds and that she would rather play in the forest than make soaps.  {1597}  I really enjoyed the classic fairy tale structure you used, complete with negligent parents and children who just want to wander in the woods. The kind of Faustian deal with the Nixe was fun to read about. The ending is dark but satisfying.  {1739}  In the beginning, Suds seems to be clever and her deals are basically made in the hopes of her parents’ adoration. The anticipation built as we work toward the payoff is well paced.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  If a creature told you that it was going to eat you, why would you lunge for it? Instinctually, it does not make sense. I also didn’t understand the ending; why did the soapmakers not live happily ever after? For all they know, they still have their two children and all the soaps they can sell.  {1597}  One flag that was raised for me is that since the parents are aware of the Nixe and warn her not to speak to it, they would probably be suspicious when she comes home with 50 perfect soaps on her first day. It seems strange they wouldn’t have suspected and put a stop to it. Also, I wasn’t sure I believed Suds would be reluctant to sacrifice her baby brother. I’m not sure if you need that last line.  {1739}  If the Nixe has the ability to ‘glamour’ why hasn’t it done this already and worked its way into a home? Why would a river sprite be able to live in disguise as a human? Suds doesn’t display any love for her brother. Why wouldn’t she agree to hand him over?

“Splitter” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post for the sake of making my short fiction pieces easier to find. You can find the original here.

It was wrong. All wrong. Ren spun the outer dial of her splitter, round and round and round and click!

“What are you playing with, child?” The passenger next to Ren smiled kindly down at her. He wasn’t supposed to see her. He never saw her. His voice, speaking to her, made her guts spin. She felt it the moment she slipped in beside him. Something was wrong in this lamina.

“Time.” Her voice came out like a tiny, broken thing. Ren liked to tell the truth, even when people didn’t understand her. But now she felt cold. Wrong answer.

“Oh?” The man studied her face for a moment, then dropped his eyes to the brassy disk in her hands. A glimmer of recognition flickered through the air toward her. The man’s hands trembled the way the hands on a pocket watch do when it needs to be wound, as if he wanted to reach out to her but was too tired.

He was going to die; everyone on the train was. Ren spun another dial on the splitter and checked the clock. Thirteen minutes, give or take. The train hurtled them toward their deaths. Round and round and round and click!

 “A mechanical calendar.” His voice was all wound up. Tense. The splitter’s little internal mechanisms delicately ticked away the seconds. He watched her too closely. “What a fascinating piece of machinery.”

Ren didn’t want to think about what would happen once she was gone. Twisting, shrieking metal and twisted, shrieking bodies. It made her want to smother the clockwork heart of the splitter. She tried not to think too much about death. All of those lives, all of those souls fractured and split and sloughing off across infinite layers of time. Each one, spread thinner and thinner and thinner until it seemed they should simply cease to exist.

“Yes.” Ren spun the final dial and felt the splitter’s clockwork heart kick again. Maybe it would still work. Maybe she could still do it. “I collect them.”

“That’s an unusual hobby for a young lady,” he said.

The man was an anomaly. His iterations fluttered randomly throughout time, disrupting patterns and weakening the thresholds between lamina. It was her job to follow. To stop him. He never knew she was coming. He never saw her.

Ren watched a raindrop cut a jagged path across her window, one of many stacked upon one another like striations in ice. She imagined the raindrop’s path stretching out across time, limitless. Just like the train hurtled over the tracks, speeding, inevitably, toward the end, every lamina of time infinite and identical. Death upon death upon death. Ten more minutes.

“I’m not that young.”

“No.” The word dropped on her like a bucket of ice water. He knew. He knew she knew. Ren slipped the splitter inside her jacket, where it ticked away next to the throbbing, twisting muscle in her chest.

It had to happen. Now.

“Now!” Inexplicably, she heard the word burst from his mouth as she thought it. A passenger three rows ahead stood and turned.

It was him. The man, again.

She froze, her body all coiled up like a spring. To her left another passenger stood. Him. Him. Him. Impossible! There should never be more than one of any iteration in a single lamina.

Everything was wrong.

Ren launched herself over the man beside her—the first iteration—and into the aisle. He lurched behind her, his fingers grasping at the child’s body she wore. A woman screamed and Ren bolted.

From the back of the train car, two more dupes came toward her. Ren did something she had never done before. She drew the tiny pistol from the holster hidden in the fabric of her childish, flowered skirt. And she fired. Another flower, a great red one, bloomed on the closest man’s chest. One down.

The second dupe grabbed another passenger and backed up slowly. Ren wanted to hesitate; she wished she did. But it didn’t matter. They were all going to die, one way or another. Ren shot the passenger, and then she shot the second dupe. Now everyone was screaming.

Ren’s head snapped back and a hand plunged inside her jacket. The man’s thick fingers wrapped in her hair, tearing at her scalp. She twisted in his grasp. Her body was too small to fight him, but if she could just—

“Get off her!” The spine of a book cracked on top of the man’s skull and he dropped Ren in surprise. The woman from the seat behind cracked him again. “Get off, you pervert!”

Ren scrabbled back and kicked upward, driving her hard-heeled shoe into the man’s knee. His face curled up and he snarled, lunging at her again. Another passenger joined the woman’s assault. The man collapsed under the weight of them but his eyes followed Ren. She pushed herself back down the aisle, eyes locked on the man’s, and reached inside her jacket for the splitter.

“Don’t do it!” The man screamed and contorted himself beneath the pile of bodies. “Don’t!”

Another dupe crawled over the seats, skirting the mob, panicked eyes fixed on her. She had to act quickly.

“All of these people!” The man was crying now. “You’re a monster.”

Ren ran her fingers around the dials, not moving them but imagining their infinite possibility. She let the weight of the splitter drag her deeper into herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she flipped the switch.

Time stretched itself limitlessly. She could see each strata as its own unique layer. She felt them with her mind, corrugated ridges that tickled her brain like the tingle of static.

“No!” The man’s voice followed her, along with the final click of the splitter. She peeled herself out of the lamina, imagining she could feel the heat from the blast as the train ripped apart. Tears sprung up and stung her eyes.

Everything was right again.

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“Splitter” was my submission for Round One of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition. My assignment was Genre: Action/Adventure, Location: a high-speed train, Object: a calendar. The following is the judges feedback I received on the story. I placed first in my group this round.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1499}  Loved this story, and it had great suspense, characters, and action. The decision she has to make has real stakes, especially after a passenger assists her. That “everything was right again” has great irony attached to it.  {1749}  Though I was a bit confused by your story, you created good action in your story.  The theme was unique and very clever.  {1793}  The ending is solid. Rem’s inner-conflict is a good tool to keep the suspense going.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1499}  Not exactly sure why this time was so different, why the man had more power/visibility than he had before. That part confused me a bit. Where did he get these additional powers?  {1749}  I wasn’t certain what Ren’s purpose was on the train.  Was she simply there to make sure the train exploded?  Were the “bad guys” really good guys trying to stop the train from blowing up?  It was a bit confusing. Also, I would suggest using a more common term than “lamina,” since the last thing you want to have the reader have to do is either gloss over it and have to stop and look up its meaning.  {1793}  The story might be improved with a quick explanation by Rem of why she is actually on the train. She might want to catch the dupe, and it might be revealed that she is the only one intending to crash the train, and trying to thwart any would-be heroes. A quick description, even a false one, might help to deepen the sense of conflict.

“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
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This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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